San Sebastián on Six Meals a Day

Sightseeing Is What Happens Between Meals
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 6 2007 2:05 PM

San Sebastián on Six Meals a Day

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For the gastronomic tourist, sightseeing is what happens between meals, and it is motivated less by curiosity than by guilt—a nagging sense that traveling for the purpose of stuffing your face smacks of philistinism—and a desire to keep the pounds from accumulating too rapidly. For this reason, San Sebastián is an ideal destination for gastronauts: It is a small, easily navigated city, with just enough attractions to fill up a morning. Better still, it doesn't have a single obligatory "if you miss it, you ignoramus, you'll regret it forever" church, monument, or museum—nothing that will force you to droop your head in faux shame should you be compelled to admit that you skipped it. True, the Guggenheim is just an hour down the coast in Bilbao, but any food traveler who claims to have gone to the museum solely for the art is probably fibbing: The Guggenheim is also home to a fine restaurant run by San Sebastián's Martín Berasategui. 

Most visitors to San Sebastián come for the sun and the surf. The city has been a fashionable summer getaway since the mid-19th century. In 1845, Queen Isabella  II, on the advice of her doctor, went to San Sebastián to receive salt-water treatments for a skin condition. Thereafter, she began summering in the Basque city, which led many Spanish aristocrats to do likewise. San Sebastián remains a retreat of the well-to-do, with property prices to match. Reflecting its somewhat unusual profile—genteel European city, seaside resort—San Sebastián has an eclectic annual calendar that includes a big surfing competition and a major international film festival. It is unusual to find serious restaurants sharing a postal code with beach cabanas; foie gras and suntan lotion don't often mix. The fact that San Sebastián happens to be both a summer playground and one of the world's great food cities is pretty extraordinary.

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Had the weather been nicer on the one morning I was free to roam, I probably would have hit the beach. But as it was raining, I decided to do the right thing and actually see some of the city. Even then, though, there was no getting away from food. In fact, I began my walking tour with a visit to the Mercado de la Bretxa, San Sebastián's indoor food market. Located in the basement level of a building on the edge of the Old Town, the small, low-key market covered all the basic food groups. Not surprisingly, the fish counters were particularly appetizing, displaying an amazing selection of shining-fresh fruits of the sea. I briefly considered looking for a knife, a plate, a pair of chopsticks, and some soy sauce, but common sense quickly overrode impulse, and I opted to limit my breakfast to just coffee.

After the market, my plan was to spend 30 minutes or so power-walking through the San Telmo, the city's most famous museum and home to works by Rubens and El Greco. Here was a chance to shed that gnawing sense of philistinism, to nourish something other than my stomach, to chase down all that food with a dollop of culture. Sure enough, I arrived to find the museum surrounded by construction fencing and closed for renovations. I was disappointed, but I could at least say that my road to lunch had been paved with good intentions. Spotting a towering cathedral just across the plaza, I decided to dip inside for a few minutes.

Whenever I travel to Europe for food and wine (which is to say, whenever I travel to Europe), I make a point of visiting at least one major cathedral; it is the quickest, easiest way of salving my conscience, if not my soul, and I have become something of a connoisseur in this particular touristic realm. Entering the Basilica de Santa María del Coro, I went through my European house of worship checklist:

Dark, musty interior: Check

Stained-glass windows: Check

Lit candles: Check

Uncomfortable wooden pews: Check

Stirring piped-in music: Check

Elderly parishioner scowling at noisy, camera-bearing tourists: Check

But even by the standards of old European cathedrals, the Santa María del Coro, which dates back to the 18th century, was unusually somber. I found myself wondering if the bracingly melancholic atmosphere owed something to San Sebastián's seafaring tradition, which had presumably claimed the lives of more than a few locals over the centuries. There was no way of immediately confirming my hunch—the elderly parishioner surely didn't speak English and was clearly in no mood to offer me any help—but I thought it at least sounded plausible.

From the basilica, I headed over to the port to learn more about that seafaring tradition at the Naval Museum. En route, I came upon a pint-sized casino and popped in to have a look. Not surprisingly, there wasn't much action at 10:30 on a Friday morning, but I managed to create some excitement. Trying to think and act like a normal tourist, as opposed to a gastronomic one, I was taking lots of photos during my walking tour, and I decided to snap one of the casino's interior. As I turned to leave, I was confronted by what I assumed was the casino's manager, who told me (in English) that photos were not permitted and demanded I hand over my camera. I told him (in English) to get stuffed and hastily retreated down the street. I wasn't particularly interested in sampling San Sebastián's jailhouse fare, though I had no doubt that it was a cut above normal prison chow.

As I approached the Naval Museum, it appeared I was going to be thwarted again by still more construction. Fortunately, the work was being done on an adjacent structure and the museum was open. It turned out to be a small, charming repository with a lovely collection of old paintings, texts, maps, and model ships. The tiny aquarium next door was also nicely done, although I'm ashamed to admit that the sight of the spiny lobsters and sea urchins did prompt thoughts of lunch.

Food was inescapable: Walking back to my hotel, I passed the Luis Irizar Cooking School. Irizar is another icon of Basque gastronomy, a septuagenarian cooking instructor who has trained a passel of top chefs, including Pedro Subijana. School was not in session, but the window display caught my eye: It featured a stuffed figure seated at a table, wearing a chef's jacket and with a face composed of various fruits. It was an image that perfectly captured the playfulness that is at the heart of New Spanish Cooking.

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